Category Archives: New York Life

The Big Short

“Too often,” said Fiorello La Guardia, “life in New York is merely a squalid succession of days, whereas in fact it can be a great, living, thrilling adventure.” I thought about my city as “a great, living, thrilling adventure” when I went to check out the throngs in Washington Square Park trying to hear Elizabeth Warren speak on September 16.

These were the faces of hopefuls, of progressives—the flash foot soldiers, many of them students who could afford to be hopeful by virtue of youth (regardless of a climate going to hell). Yes, it was a predominantly white audience, and, yes, there was a smattering of those whom Republicans love to label “the elite” and we locally will willingly stereotype as Upper East/West, Brooklyn, or maybe Tribeca moms. But for the most part, this was a group that could not afford a lot—maybe because there seemed to be more women.

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Paint It White

My father’s mother was an old lady when I was born. My first memory of her house is a pair of large pink candles—one shaped like a “7” and the other a “9”—adorning the dining room buffet. She had turned that age at a party sometime in the past, and she liked to turn the “7” upside down to make it look like a “2.”

She was a young woman in the 1920s, but the era she fetishized—as an Irish American who married an Irish American—was the first years of the twentieth century.

She banged out bad chords on an upright piano and was always singing sad songs about dying children—“I’m Tying the Leaves So They Won’t Come Down.” Everybody died back then, when she was a girl in Elmira, New York. One of her brothers died of pneumonia—in bed at home, just like in Dickens. Her best friend, Loretta Meade, died as a young teen because she walked in the rain “during her monthly.”

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Mockingbird, Red and Blue

U2 may have advanced the theory that “midnight is where the day begins,” but most of the world’s songbirds don’t clock in till dawn. The famous exception is the nightingale. Unattached males will sing through the night to attract a mate, while males in general sing during the hour before sunrise as a chest-puffing exercise in defending their territory. Keats believed that the nightingale has never known “the weariness, the fever, and the fret” of groaning men. But singing all night for a mate and then continuing on to maintain your turf has to be a slog. The bird might as well be holding a boombox over its head.

As a resident of North America, I didn’t think much about the night part of nightingales until I heard birdsong at 2 a.m. It was strange to gradually register the lone trilling piercing through the temporary void of urban acoustics north of Boston. The solitary voice was both beautiful and sad. I knew it couldn’t be a nightingale—most of all because it sang like a mockingbird.

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Cashless

There’s a scene in The Forty-Year-Old Virgin that doesn’t shed much light on sex but offers a prescient glimpse into the future of commerce. Catherine Keener’s character sells things on eBay but keeps the merchandise for show in an actual store. Jonah Hill wants to buy the pair of glittery boots with goldfish on the bottom that he is holding in his hands, but Keener tells him he can only buy them via eBay.

This was way back in 2005, when an eBay seller’s unwillingness to take a potential customer’s cash seemed funny. It was also a time when a lot of the items sold on eBay were curios and collectibles rather than things that would restock your medicine cabinet.

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Breakfast in America

Forty years ago this month, the British band Supertramp released Breakfast in America. I use the descriptor “British band” because by that date it had pushed any louche-glam connotation dangerously close to middlebrow. By 1979, it wasn’t just the four primary hair compositions of these bands to emerge from the black-lit mist; the risers supported supplemental musicians galore. Identifying the principals posed a challenge for the uninitiated.

Though it was Los Angeles to which Supertramp had emigrated two years before, the mythic America depicted on the album jacket is the island of Manhattan. The Jane Withers-looking waitress holds a glass of near-pornographic-hued orange juice in front of the ghost-white Twin Towers. It’s tempting to think that 1979 marked the end of the heyday of expats satirizing Hotel California bacchanalia—biting the hand that feeds you, so to speak. But that era managed to proceed along quite nicely for at least another decade thanks to Genesis and Phil Collins.

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Achtung, Baby

You’re walking on a sidewalk with one of your grandmothers. You’re old enough to be out of a stroller but young enough to be a pedestrian hazard. You start out at your grandmother’s side but invariably you drift. Then it happens—the startling yank to some piece of clothing attached to you. Your grandmother’s arm maneuvers as if by reflex, as pneumatic as a robotic claw turning a diesel engine. “Stay on the right and everyone gets to where they’re going.”

These kinds of memories tend to claim outsize real estate in the minds of those of us who walk around a large city every day. That’s because we cannot fathom how this custom—you drive on the right and you walk on the right—could be cast aside in lieu of nothing.

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This Train

A week before the midterms last fall, Bruce Springsteen released the live version of “Land of Hope and Dreams,” from the soundtrack to Springsteen on Broadway. If you’d been wanting to weep about the demise of the U.S. of A., this song was the perfect trigger.

Take, for instance, the prospect of living in a nation where “dreams will not be thwarted.” That’s right up there with “trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored,” from the thick of the Civil War in 1862. It took America a mere 103 years after the debut of that tune to give black residents the supposed right to vote at a polling station. As for de facto voting rights for more than 14% of our nation . . . well, Nancy Pelosi et al. are hinting that the check might be in the mail. (But don’t hold your breath.) Continue reading